written by Thor Erickson | photos by Rob Kerr
“Eat less meat. Eat better meat.” This is the mantra of Adam Danforth, the author of Butchering Poultry, Rabbit, Lamb, Goat, Pork, which won top 2016 awards from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Danforth extolls the virtues, from sustainability to taste, of using the meat of older animals, a rarity in the food industry today. He has recently worked with chefs such as José Andrés and Rick Bayless, who have begun featuring older cuts on the menus of their high-profile restaurants. Danforth, who is based in Ashland, travels the country educating everyone from chefs to ranchers to home cooks about the value of mature animals.
After meeting Danforth at the IACP awards in Washington, D.C., last year and seeing his new book, I began using it as the textbook in my butchery class at the Cascade Culinary Institute in Bend. Danforth recently did a butchery demonstration of lamb and mutton at the Oregon State University Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point, where I asked him to elaborate on why his philosophy is at the forefront of the culinary sphere today.
What do you mean by “older meat?”
AD: Americans are eating animals younger than ever. Beef is produced at a quickening pace with slaughter ages getting earlier and earlier. Pigs are slaughtered before a year old, as are lambs. Kid goat is about the only thing you will see on a menu. Older animals have working muscles that render more flavor, and have a higher yield. We should be supporting farmers more by consuming their older and cull animals.
How is mutton different from lamb?
AD: A lamb is a young sheep, usually slaughtered at or under 12 months old. Yearling mutton is 12-18 months old, and mutton is anything older than that. There is a big misconception that mutton is tough and has a strong flavor due to its age.
As Danforth butchered a 6-year-old sheep from a nearby ranch, he identified the cuts and promptly handed them to a chef, who seared the muscles in a cast-iron pan, dressed them with just enough salt to bring out the flavor, and passed slices of it to the fifty attendees to sample.
The audience, composed of local chefs, ranchers, butchers and home cooks, was amazed with the flavor and tenderness of the mutton. One naysayer was shocked at the medium-rare temperature of the meat and swore by his own method of long, slow and well-done. “There are no rules,” Danforth replied. “If it’s tender medium-rare, it will be tender any way it is cooked.”
After the demonstration, I told Danforth that my favorite cut of mutton or lamb is the neck. He agreed. “It’s the most-used group of muscles on an animal, therefore the most flavorful,” he said.
On my drive back from Southern Oregon, all I could think about was picking up a mutton neck or two from my local butcher. Here’s how I prepare it.
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